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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

Florida's class size violations continue to shrink as reliance on 'choice' loophole grows

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Violations of Florida's class size rules continued their steep decline this fall, as school districts increasingly took advantage of a three-year-old legislative loophole, Department of Education records indicate.

According to the latest data, released last week, 1,433 of 125,159 traditional public school classrooms, 1 of 6 lab schools, 47 of 649 charter schools and 10 of 2,331 district-operated schools of choice were not in compliance with the constitutional requirement to maintain class sizes of no more than 18 students in grades K-3, 22 students in grades 4-8 and 25 students in grades 9-12.

Before 2013, the "schools of choice" option did not exist. Held to strict classroom counts, many districts across Florida found themselves missing the mark by hundreds of students and facing fines in the millions if they did not present plans to comply the following year.

The choice option, which came after voters rejected referenda to ease the mandate, allowed districts to maintain class size as a school-wide average if those campuses were designated as "schools of choice." Participation in that model started slowly, with a dozen or so districts saying their open enrollment policies made some or all of their schools "of choice." 

It only gained steam in following years, with the number of district operated schools of choice rising from 1,193 in 2013-14 to 1,861 last year and 2,331 this year.

Twenty-nine of the state's 67 districts, including Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando, listed no "traditional" public school classes this fall. Another 14 showed less than 10 percent of their classrooms in that category. See the DOE class size reports on traditional schools, charter schools and schools of choice for more details.

A handful of Florida lawmakers talked last spring about amending the law, which they said allowed districts to "game the system." The effort went nowhere.

Lawmakers, primarily Republicans, have tried several times since voters approved the class size rules in 2002 to defang the mandate. The "schools of choice" concept, which slipped quietly into law as part of Democratic Sen. Bill Montford's proposal to let school districts create their own charter schools, is the only attempt to take hold.

Montford is CEO of the state superintendents association, which has regularly fought for looser class size requirements.

[Last modified: Monday, December 12, 2016 11:56am]


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